The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fellow Democrats target Wexton over corporate money in House primary

State Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-Loudoun) at an April event in Vienna, Va. She is one of six Democratic candidates in th e June 12 primary for U.S. House.
State Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-Loudoun) at an April event in Vienna, Va. She is one of six Democratic candidates in th e June 12 primary for U.S. House. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Two of the six Virginia Democrats vying to challenge Rep. Barbara Comstock are criticizing their party’s apparent front-runner, state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton, because she hasn’t pledged to forgo corporate donations.

Dan Helmer and Alison Friedman have ramped up attacks on Wexton (D-Loudoun), saying a nominee who has not pledged to refuse corporate money can’t create enough of a contrast with Comstock, the Republican House incumbent, to win a general election.

Wexton promised in February that she would no longer accept money from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest corporate political donor and a populist target during last year’s governor’s race.

Before making the pledge, she took $1,850 in contributions for her congressional race from a Dominion lobbyist and $4,500 in contributions for her two state legislative campaigns from Dominion and the lobbyist.

Josh Stanfield, executive director of Activate Virginia, which came up with the Dominion pledge, said he considered Wexton’s decision to forgo Dominion money a watershed moment. “Maybe there’s some electoral potency or maybe it just felt like the right thing to do,” he said. “I’ll take either.”

While she stopped short of a formal pledge regarding other corporate donors, Wexton has not taken their money, either, said her campaign manager, Ray Rieling.

That’s not good enough, say Helmer and Friedman.

“For state Senator Wexton, questions remain,” Friedman said Tuesday night at a candidates forum in Chantilly. “She took corporate PAC money and then took a pledge not to take it, and I wonder whether her principles evolved or whether it was just political calculations.”

Democrats can unseat Comstock, Friedman added, “but only if we remember the integrity that is demanded in the office we seek.”

Friedman, who worked in the Obama State Department, and Helmer, an Army veteran, along with the rest of the field — Lindsey Davis Stover, who worked on veterans policy in the Obama administration; former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier; and scientist Julia Biggins — have all said they will not take donations from corporations.

Wexton is the most well known of the candidates and the establishment favorite. She is the only officeholder in the race and has been endorsed by high-profile Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam and Reps. Gerald E. Connolly and A. Donald McEachin, as well as the Service Employees International Union.

The race is a top priority for Democrats who want to take control of the U.S. House and believe Comstock is vulnerable in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton and Northam by double digits. The primary is June 12.

Unlike the other top fundraisers — Friedman, Helmer and Stover — Wexton has raised the vast majority of her campaign war chest from inside Virginia, Rieling said.

Friedman, Helmer and Wexton have all taken money from noncorporate political action committees.

Friedman has accepted donations from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists PAC, People for the American Way’s Voters Alliance PAC, the Fearless for the People PAC, Feminist Majority PAC and the America 2.0 PAC, according to federal campaign reports.

Helmer’s PAC donors include, J Street and National Security Democrats.

And Wexton has accepted money from the Turkish Coalition Midwest PAC, the Commonwealth PAC and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades PAC.

The donations prompted a sharp exchange between Helmer and Wexton during a breakfast forum Saturday in Winchester.

In a video clip, Helmer called on Wexton to pledge not to accept corporate PAC money in current and future elections.

“Dan, if you take money from VoteVets, you take corporate PAC money,” Wexton said.

“So no, you’re not willing to do it?” Helmer said.

“I have not taken a dime of corporate PAC money in this election,” she said.

Then Wexton handed the microphone back to the moderator as Helmer again asked: “So you will not in this race or ever again take corporate PAC money?”

Helmer campaign manager Bonnie Krenz later said that although corporations are among VoteVets donors, the organization is in line with Helmer’s values.

“We don’t mind taking money from groups whose views we agree with, particularly a veterans organization,” she said. “We think it’s important that we represent working families in the district, not corporations.”